Author Archives: hugtrip

About hugtrip

Thirtysomething chick in pursuit of new visions, fits of laughter, sexual ecstasy, dreamlike states, and stoner-quality revelations by trading judgment for self-acceptance.

Etching Your Personal 10 Commandments

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My parents would have chosen less psychedelic lights.

Tradition merges the present moment with the past that formed it.

Every year, we hold a now-annual Memorial Scavenger Hunt in my hometown. Last year, after my father’s birthday and death fell unfortunately on the same week, we zipped through a train of holidays.

Within the ensuing four weeks, we celebrated Thanksgiving, my birthday, and Christmas — all punctuated by his empty chair. The festivities provided closeness, warmth, laughter and distraction, contrasted by the inevitable emptiness of the day after Christmas.

HONORING THE PAST BY SEEKING NEW PRESENTS

So, I decided we needed something to bookend the merriment. In his honor (and this year, in my mother’s as well), we divided into teams, making a list of actions to perform and items to gather, taking us from one end of the city to the other. Something about traveling these familiar roads, honoring their personalities, hobbies and loves, was healing.

TWO STONE COLD TABLETS, ONE BREATHING SELF

This year, one of the items on the list was:

“Break a commandment in the church parking lot.”

Because our particular religion was extremely restrictive, this amounted to lighthearted liberation. When I recounted the tale to a friend I grew up with, he suggested he might adopt the notion as a “bucket list” item — to break all 10 commandments there one day. The point, of course, wasn’t to ridicule our childhood religion, but to free ourselves from an environment that demanded perfection, created unbearable pressure, and left no room for humanness.

This experiment got me thinking. Many of the “Ten Commandments” represent universal moral virtues — nonviolence, contentment, family, honesty, faithfulness, rest, and a life without greed. The remaining three involve reverence of the sacred. In a sense, the bulk of these rules for living are simply societal and human.

Notice we only were so brazen as to get  sacrilegious in the parking lot.

Sometimes you have to question the rules you’ve memorized to make the ones you know by heart.

WHAT IF WE GAVE YOU A HAMMER AND A NAIL?

But if you were in charge, what would be in your 10 commandments for living? If it were up to you (and not Moses or God), what would you etch on that stone? They say one source of guilt is when we violate our own standards for living — but how can we know when we’re experiencing healthy guilt if we find ourselves unclear on what standards we hold?

EXERCISE: FIND YOUR OWN 10 RULES FOR LIVING

We call them ideals for a reason. We’re not perfect individuals, and we’re all works in progress. Here’s a quick way to solidify your core beliefs — or to create them, if you’ve never given yourself the chance to think outside those that were handed to you.

  1. Honor your divinity.
    Give yourself permission to play God a little. Don’t worry about whether your beliefs are “right” or “wrong.” Worry more about whether or not they are valuable ideas in your own eyes.
     
  2. How would you like to “do unto others”?
    How do you treat others? How would you like to treat them? Write out 2-3 rules for interactions withothers. Choose ones that feel fair, nurturing of your relationships, and ones that you’ll feel good following. Think of times you’ve felt best about your interactions with others.
     
    How much do you disclose? In which ways do you honor those you know? These can be anything from “Never miss a chance to say, ‘I love you'” to “Take 2 hours to cool down from arguments before expression.”
     
  3. How would you like to “do unto you”?
    Make a second list. What are your rules for how you treat yourself? All too often we base morality solely on our kindness towards other people, forgetting to honor, protect, and love ourselves. When are you at your best, most optimistic, most empowered? When are you at peace? Write down a few rules for living that facilitate these things.
    Making Your Own Rules

    Choose your form of tablet, find your divine mountain and write.

    Maybe “Thou shalt” meditate every day for 20 minutes. Maybe “thou shalt” list the highlights of each day before you fall asleep. Perhaps “thou shalt” walk around your neighborhood in the morning, or take that bath. Maybe “thou shalt” listen to dance music when you’re feeling down-and-out, or treat yourself to a cup of tea at the close of every day.
     

  4. What stagnates your soul?
    What are your sources of shame or pain? The things you never feel good about when you do? Write down 2-3 “Thou shalt not”s in response. For example, “Thou shalt not compare yourself to others on Facebook,” “Never second-guess your gut,” or “Thou shalt not use low blows in arguments.”
     
  5. What matters most to you?
    What do you values do you hold dearest in life? Nonjudgment? Beauty? Expression? Honesty? Responsibility? Write these down to fill out your 10 commandments. “Always strive for honesty.” “Never censor yourself or others.” “Keep your word.” “Question your assumptions.” “Find something beautiful about every struggle.”
     
  6. Edit the tense parts.
    Re-read your list. Ask yourself which commandments fill you with peace, and which make your body tense up.
     
  7. Keep what you can own.
    Revisit any commandments that cause tension. Question them. Where did you learn these lessons — from life, from your parents, from your religion, or from yourself? Keep only those that came from your core experience or deepest self. Strike through the others.
     
  8. Break the rules for making the rules.
    Give yourself permission to have 2 commandments or 20. The point is that they’re yours.
     
  9. Build in compassion for your renegade self.
    Add one last rule — that you will always forgive yourself for your shortcomings, look ahead to your next opportunity to hold your values, and believe that your humanity is perhaps your most divine quality.
     

All the Same

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Most of us have an interesting uncle. I’ve been thinking a lot about mine lately. Intelligent, quirky, hermited, disheveled. He walks a lot. He adored his wife, followed by a devastating divorce he never quite got over. He idolized his mother, quit a high-powered career to care for her for eight years. He leaves handwritten notes, staked with sticks and sellotape beside her grave.

He doesn’t spend holidays with family. In fact, we rarely see him despite his proximity. It’s always by accident and it’s been over 15 years for most of us. He doesn’t have an e-mail address. I’m not sure he has an answering machine. He volunteers at soup kitchens on holidays from what I hear.

He’s not hard to make fun of. He’s hard to relate to. It seems he gave up on life in general — and its core components of accomplishment, romance and connection — when his mother died. (If you believe the core components in life are limited to such.)

Who Talks to the Isolated?

He rarely speaks to anyone I know. For years, he even refused contact from his brothers, each within a short drive. But he always had a soft spot for my mother, and my mother, barring a few clashes, always reserved a soft spot for him.

My mom wouldn’t have classified herself as an intellectual. She was the epitome of extravert. A former beauty queen, she dressed to the nines, carried herself with a simultaneous softness and class. On the surface, she and my uncle had little in common at all.

But my mom related to the world on a completely different level. She saw similarities, not differences. She empathized where she had no experience. She could connect with virtually everyone. The only people who eluded her compassion were bullies of some sort. She wept for victims, stood up for the disenfranchised, opened our home to the homeless, brought laughter to the chronically depressed, encouraged the continual basketcases. She cheered at the worst criminals captured and sentenced, then wept again for their victims, for their mothers, mourned their executions.

And she understood emotional pain. She felt her life story was one of transcending tragedy. She believed the way through was to feel and heal.

Yesterday morning, I thought a lot about my parents. For long-time Christians of the arguably most judgmental denomination, they were astoundingly accepting. My mother taught me early this same trait. “Hurt people hurt people,” she’d say. “They just need an inner healing.”

Just Say Yes

After school one day, a tall, model-thin upperclassman chatted me up and offered me hard drugs I declined. Her mom had lupus. I came home and recounted the story, expecting my mom to validate my “just say no” behavior. She reprimanded me instead. “You’re missing the point. Invite her over,” she said. I did. She accepted.

My mom didn’t have a heart-to-heart with her about coke. She didn’t preach to her about religion. She didn’t ask her about her mom. She complimented her, told her self-effacing funny stories, cooked her food, sent her home with more. Invited her over again. And again. I befriended her, listened to her life with the same nonjudgment. She stopped doing drugs on her own accord. She started doing well in school.

I can’t remember her name. I have no idea where or who she is today. I don’t know if her mom ever beat the lupus, or if she buried her only parent after high school. I don’t know why she improved her life during that year. I don’t know if any of the kindness we showed her helped.

But I know that for that single year, she could always catch a ride to my house. I know she relaxed, had fun, maybe escaped a little. I know she swore up a storm and my mom never blinked. She just saw a girl going through it. A girl with beautiful dark hair. A person with defenses. A person with, like most people with walls, some pain they’re defending against re-injury.

No Comparison

And that’s how she saw my uncle, too. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” she’d always explain. She’d lost a child of nearly three, died suddenly in her arms. She’d lost two brothers before the age of five. She survived a terminal disease in her 30s. Barely. She survived war-time, bombs and virtually every abuse imaginable. It makes sense why she would hold compassion for such things.

But what always simultaneously bewildered me, she didn’t stop there. Grieving for your dog six months later? You get a plant on your doorstep on the anniversary. Lost your job? Expect a weekly card with handwritten encouragement. Can’t get past a decades-old divorce? She got it; she’d listen. People would always say to her, “There’s no pain like losing a child.” Strangely, though she was one of the few people I knew at the time with that experience, she’d disagree. Because it didn’t matter what it was.

“For some,” she’d say, “it’s a divorce. For others, the worst pain they feel is when their kids are alcoholics. For others, it’s the pet. It’s all equal.”

Through the Pain to the Good

I’ve been thinking about my interesting uncle for a while. I’ve thought about calling him. We never do. There could be some benefits; maybe he knows some historical detail about our family, maybe he might share a memory about my dad. But the odds aren’t good. He’s not totally linear and they were fairly estranged. These really aren’t my reasons.

I just keep thinking of my mom seeing through his awkwardness to the pain, through the pain to the good. The deep bond he held for his mom, the loyalty, the intelligence, the straightforwardness, the reverence for yesterday, the sensitivity, the soul. And I keep finding myself astounded he responded to her, in an era of life where he responded to virtually no one else, not even blood relatives.

I get it a little. I see through the sticks and sellotape missives, the technology aversion, the isolation, the strangeness. It doesn’t matter what it is or when it was, at least to me. I’d just like to hear him, to maybe help him feel understood, offer a connection, card, validation, kindness, laughter.

Diary of a Strange Woman

We spend so much of our thoughts focusing on normal, right, ideal, functional. We bring expectations. We operate in judgments, then defend their existence as “healthy,” “right,” “balanced,” “positive,” or even “enlightened.” We want to define our values, and once we’ve defined them, we stick with them. We want to surround ourselves with those who share our lifestyles, hobbies, views, status levels, philosophies, circles. We like the winners. We seek the good times, we want the laughter. We’re human and we want to be happy.

But there’s this strange woman whose face I’ve seen all day long in my mind’s eye. She went to funerals for people she didn’t know, when she intuited they’d be empty ones. She worked with AIDS patients when it was still considered dangerous. She invited her teenage daughter’s drug-pusher to come eat with us. She invited the mentally ill to our house after church to our mortification. She packed an extra lunch every night for the divorced dad working on our roof for weeks.

She had a strong sense of justice, but couldn’t care less about rules. She saw wounded and healed instead of degrees of “healthy.” She was unapologetically herself, and she expected you to be — equally unapologetically — yourself at all times.

Boxless Perceptions

Tonight, it struck me. I don’t care who doesn’t get this grief. I’m not sure I even care who gets me, at this point. No one wants this, any more than they want the divorce, the dead dog, the alcoholism, the eating disorder, the drug habit. But, despite my fumbling steps sometimes, I’ve got this belief that we can heal through the tragedies, make good on them, let them transform us, give it out when they do. Even to the aggravating. Even to the self sabotaging. Even to the misfits.

There are no misfits if there’s no box to fit in. There’s no anger without judgment. There’s no self sabotage when there’s no societal ideal. When we check our judgments, we check our aggravations. We open ourselves to the value of living beyond the components or measures of our lives. We begin to inhabit an openness that compassion dwells in and kindness spills out of. Onto your favorite uncle. Onto your interesting one, the same.

What’s in a Moment of Silence

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My mom used to introduce me as “her quiet one.” There’s a videotape of an effusive, chatterbox me — one that confirms my earliest memories — at 2 1/2 years old. From first grade, I could take a stage fearlessly — singing, speaking, and acting. But somewhere behind the scenes, when the curtain closed, I was silent; introverted and soft-toned on the occasion I spoke.

Some part of me muted somewhere between 2 1/2 and 4 years old, probably not for happy reasons. It took the better part of ten years to wrap my fingers around the volume dial. In some ways, it took me another four to begin to turn it up. As an adult, on the dark night I arguably needed my voice most, just shy of my 30th birthday, I found myself uttering a mere partial sentences. In hindsight, perhaps for the same reasons — fear, intuition, survival.

Reasonless Silence

At my core, I’m an extrovert, happy to share any thought I’ve actually processed. From what I’ve witnessed and exchanged, it seems I process a little faster than most. As a result, people who know me now don’t equate me with silence; in fact, much more with talkativeness. When I fall silent, I’m inevitably asked what’s wrong. Most of the time, nothing. I’m merely being; tired of thoughts, weary of words and making sounds.

There are times I’m still afraid to speak. Sometimes, I choose not to out of deference to someone else. Occasionally, the words are still forming in me. I’m what’s known as a great conversationalist; I can hold my own and connect to virtually anyone, no matter the volume they operate at. But if it’s not my authentic self relating in the moment, I’m exhausted afterwards. I’m at my best when I’m genuine, and I’m genuine most of the time. Expression comes effortlessly in these moments.

Paper Words

I’ve never been a writer who outlines; oftentimes, I have little idea of even a central topic until I hit the first word. There’s a synthesis that happens in some back room of my brain; I see glimpses of it, moments of recognition, a passing thought I register and watch disappear. I’ve written 20-page analytical essays this way; argumentative papers; reflective essays; and virtually every blog entry, definitely every poem.

There’s a moment, a halfway physical feeling of peace in the center my chest. Perhaps some part of me becomes aware of some internal draft breezing, as the door to that backroom opens.

And then it comes out in one shot, every comma, period, word. I’ve learned that when that peace is absent, I can resort to an outline, push words out, but they’re forced constructions, rather than the product of a brain and heart that work together. I’d rather not type.

Opting Out of Words

Lately, I’ve been unusually quiet. There have been gatherings, dates, meet-ups with friends, business meetings. I fielded non-stop conversations as a bridesmaid in a weekend wedding. But when I don’t have to, in the company of myself or those I am most comfortable around, I’m the quiet one. I knew someone who, at every major life change, visited a hermitage with a vow of silence, always finding the next trail of her path in the hours she emerged.

Unhearable Music

I’m amazed at my patience lately. I’m amazed at how little I desire to disturb the silence. I’m half-stunned I’ve typed even these words in its acknowledgement. Something has been moving inside me; some score with scribbles on loose pages of staff paper, perhaps still too cacophonous, a little out of order, a bit out of synch. They’re still working it out in the backroom, I guess. And I’m still waiting for that peace.

There are moments that punctuate the rhythms of our daily lives, kind of like the rests on sheet music that intersperse with sound. These pauses, most frequently curled and fleeting, have more persistent cousins that sit on or across the lines. But occasionally, you’ll hit a sheet of music with whole lines of black, presence and emptiness of prolonged silence. These measures, that wait — the precise time between the last sound you heard and the smallest next sound you will — that’s the music too. Eventually, all encapsulated in movements.

10 Ways to Nurture Your Inner Voice

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In any situation — particularly the tough ones, often the most important ones — we find ways of making decisions. We list pros and cons in a simple measurement of advantage versus potential negatives. We enlist the opinions of others, hoping that their truths will prove just as true for us. We lead with emotional responses. We set deadlines for decision. At a loss, we consult horoscopes, psychics, flip a coin, or just throw up our hands. All of these are valid, human — in a way, they’re all we’ve got — and for everyday decisions, they usually work.

But when life presents us with important choices — or hopeless situations — we experience the most surety and freedom when we access our inner voice. This is often a lot harder than it sounds. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, both internal and external forces can cloud our deepest feelings, frustrations and desires. Here are some tips to allow that pure voice to come out, uncensored and uninhibited.

#1: Realize Your Relevance

A few weeks ago, I spent several days pondering a large, heart-rending decision — one in which I was told my feelings and thoughts were irrelevant. The moment we believe that nothing we do matters, we ensure against solutions and render ourselves ineffective. When we tell ourselves that outcomes are beyond our control, we naturally abdicate responsibility — and in the process, avoid empowerment. Everything we do carries an effect in this universe — on others, and more importantly, on ourselves. Any decision or reaction we have deeply matters, and we will never seek the one that genuinely feels right while we tell ourselves we have no impact. Our inner voice won’t rise up unless we call on it and give it the right to the floor.

#2: Seek Some Silence

During those days, I knew the first thing I had to do was simply power down the smart phone, log out of the e-mail. Other voices can often crowd out our own. Advice is wonderful, but sometimes our souls surprise us when we let the other opinions die down.

#3: Be Kind to Yourself

Some emotions — particularly anger, desire and hurt — spike our deepest fears, which is one of the reasons we run from them at their slightest surfacing. We need to feel extremely safe and important in order to allow these feelings to rise and in order to be willing to face and process them. My rule of thumb is to force myself to do three nice things for myself in a row. Usually, by the third, I feel safe, validated and important. Suddenly, I have the right to get really angry. I have the right to want things. I have the right to be hurt. And in the process, I’ve strengthened myself along the way with self-care, so that I can better handle these emotions when they arise.

#4: Allow Time to Process

We often feel urgency when we feel emotions, particularly those rooted in fear. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that there are usually only one or two moments in your life when decisions must be made on the spot. Processing takes time; however, time only helps bring clarity when you actively allow yourself to process your fears, your desires, your emotional blocks. Otherwise, you may find yourself weeks down the road with the same lack of clarity.

#5: Break the Rules

Our “should sense” is cultivated from the time we’re tiny, dictating most of our daily habits. Even the most hardened criminals obey more laws than they break, by default. Naturally, we seek answers, rules of thumb, distilled beliefs. But we can bully our internal voice into silence by refusing to challenge them.

If you’ve felt caught between two choices, it’s often a clue you’re seeing in black and white. Fear tamps down our creative thought — and often our best solutions. Give yourself permission to arrive at any course of action, ranging from run-of-the-mill to utterly insane, to see more than two roads where many paths exist. When anger or fear leaves us stuck in duality, it’s often because we’re binding ourselves by rules and judgments. If you’re having trouble hitting on a joyful solution, observe judgments that may be coming into play. Instead of resigning yourself to dissatisfaction and pain, embrace divergent thought. Sometimes the most absurd answer may simply work. Give yourself permission to consider every solution, from the most mundane to the most insane.

#6: Find the Anger

I never used to get angry. Several years ago, I surprised myself by yelling back at someone. Horrified, I worried I might have an anger management problem, leading me to seek help. Ten specialists told me in phone calls I clearly didn’t have an anger problem; the 11th told me I did — I hadn’t learned how to let myself get angry. Most of us don’t; anger is seen as threatening, uncool, potentially violent or distressing. Anger is a signal to us that change needs to happen, most often because our needs aren’t being met, or our boundaries are being crossed. Suppressing anger takes a lot of energy; and discharging it will lessen the tension, but never activate real change.

Make a list of everything you could possibly be angry about, starting with the small things to coax the anger out — the noisy neighbor, the work hanging over your head, the person you love, the boss you hate — and make yourself keep going, starting every line with “I am angry that….” Along the way, you’ll start to get into it. Just let it all out. Finally, label each one with an “N” (for need) or “B” (for boundary).

#7: Use Anger to Find Desire

Anger leads us to empowerment. We have needs, dammit, and we’re sick of going without those things. We have boundaries, and we get angry when you cross them. But anger isn’t a stopping point, but a starting point to lead us to the inner voice of desire.

Revisit your anger list. What is it you really, deeply want from each line? Without pre-judging your ability to obtain your desires, turn each one into a statement of “want,” and ask yourself what the deepest thing you want in each instance is. Maybe you do need to ask the noisy neighbor to quiet down; but maybe you also have a deeper need of peace and quiet — a vacation, a walk in nature, a less hectic schedule.

#8: Find the Fear

I’ve learned trust my gut in almost every instance, but I’ve learned to check it against fear. Fear obscures our gut feelings, because it’s a guttural reaction; it’s fight or flight. Ask yourself what scares you about each option you have. Who would you be if that fear didn’t exist? How would you act? Imagine what you might feel, how you might treat yourself and treat others, what you might want if you were guaranteed your fears wouldn’t come true. What would you love to do? What would you let yourself do?

#9: Listen to Your Body and Wish

So often, we talk ourselves out of our deepest wishes. We tell ourselves we can’t have them. We tell ourselves they’re impossible. We say we can’t afford it. We tell ourselves others will never comply. We cut off change with narrow logic, judgments, odds. It’s no wonder we end up in the same situation.

Before you start, focus on the physical feeling of anger. Imagine yourself with a Magic Change Wand, one in which “can’t”s and “shouldn’t”s and “won’t”s don’t matter. Start with a single line you’re angry about and try on solutions. Which ones make the anger sensation go away? Which ones bring freedom and happiness instead of frustration?

Pay attention to your body — scanning down, from your head to chest, stomach to extremities — and sit with the feelings that arise. What brings great relief, great happiness?

#10: Pay Attention to What You’re Not Feeling

One of the things I’ve learned is that anxiety often comes, not because of the feelings we are aware of, but because of those we suppress and push down. Our bodies respond negatively to the feelings we bulldoze away and bury down, and anxiety results. When you give those feelings permission to arise — no matter how foolish, how useless, or how threatening — anxiety immediately begins to recede, giving way to peace; often even laughter.

Imagine you’re talking to a friend with your decision or problem. What would you expect them to feel? Anger? Sadness? Outrage? Disappointment? Love? Ask yourself which emotions haven’t come through yet. Ask yourself what fears might be standing in the way of letting those through. What is the risk involved with feeling desire or anger? What can you think or do to eliminate that fear and allow your deepest feelings to come forth?

Seeing the Best to Get to the Good

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“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of…a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents.” –Howard Zinn

The Walk of Shame(lessness)

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What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Chances are, you don’t want to think about it. In fact, we push our deepest guilts so far down, they often don’t come to mind even when we ask ourselves that question. Then every once in a while, out of blue, something brings them to our remembrance. We feel slightly ill, horrified all over again, to remember — and then push it out of our minds once more.

Sometimes, I dream permutations of the same dream. It starts with a single realization: I’ve killed someone, usually by accident, usually someone I don’t know. I often have no recollection of the murder; simply a moment of horrified recognition that it must have been me. I’m segueing, dodging, acting cool, double-checking, covering my tracks. No one is actually chasing me, but I’m mentally on the run, consumed by the knowledge of what I’ve done, what I have to lose, and what “they” know.

The last time I recall having this dream, my father appeared. In some moment thereafter, my dream self had a single, clear thought: “It’s strange that I would committed this crime. It doesn’t make sense. The logical conclusion is that this is one of those dreams.”

I don’t remember where my dad was in reality when I dreamt this. Perhaps sleeping at home himself; maybe in a coma; perhaps his body already broken down to ash. But I credit his appearance with the awareness that came afterwards. Our parents remain convinced of our better nature. It seems no coincidence that the single dream in which I knew that I was innocent, the realization came after a dinner conversation in dreamland with Dad.

Most of us haven’t ever taken a life. Maybe we’ve had moments of verbal or physical violence, perhaps we’ve said the regrettable, broken trusts and promises, defaulted on responsibilities. We’ve probably given up more than a few times, angled for our own way, lied in a panic, gained in a way that caused another to lose, broken a few hearts. We have vices, from chocolate to tobacco; from porn to ale; from shopping to drugs. We’ve all lived a moment, in essence, that’s so unbelievably beyond our sense of morality that we can’t believe the actor in the scene was us.

And that’s the whole, entire point.

We even neglect to validate and recognize the sense of innate goodness that leads us to gasp at these snapshots of us at our worst.

This morning, I fretted over coffee over an impending week-long stay in the presence of someone who judges me. What bothers me most isn’t that they dislike me — or even the stuff they misconstrue. Sure, no one likes to be misunderstood, alienated or hurt — but the things others say that haunt us are the ones that make us doubt our own goodness and sense of self. Many such judgments this person has flung my way consist mainly of third-hand gossip, suspicion, and one-sided perspective out of context — but in some scenarios, there’s truth. Amid the misunderstandings, misinformation and misjudgments are some of my least wonderful moments.

So who am I to argue, when she reminds me of over a decade of mistakes? When the evidence seems to point to our guilt, our badness, who are we to presume our innocence?

Enter Dad into dreamland. (He should come more often, as my dream self obviously needs to retain a good attorney.)

My parents were, like most of ours are, my biggest fans. They had four children; each unique. They saw our flaws, loved us anyway, and celebrated our beauty, distinctness, talents, aptitudes, personalities. They saw the wholeness behind the biographical narratives our actions created. Quite simply, they saw us as people, with compassion and understanding. We were more than our past to them; we were our potential. We were more than our errors; we were our reasons; we were our recoveries.

Over two years ago, a client did not pay for a hefty project my company produced. This placed me in a bind — subcontractors who merited payment, without incoming payment to facilitate. In these cases, as always, I made a practice of paying, partially out of a sense of duty, and partly out of empathy for the freelancers I once was. My father had loaned me money to help me make good on my word . Amid a personal life stretched with stress, I carried a single guilt: I paid the contractors, except for one in particular.

It haunted me.

I would remind myself to pay them, and then I’d forget. I’d remember occasionally when paying bills that brought my bank balance too close for comfort, and add it to a “to do” list when I got paid next. I’d push it out of my mind, eventually forget, and remember with horror each time. How could I do this to someone?

I even found myself in the same room with this contractor in a social situation, by total and sheer random coincidence. I considered righting the situation, but didn’t have my checkbook on me and didn’t want to make a promise that may appear empty. I’d never met them face to face; I’d wanted to compliment them that evening, introduce myself, but the shame was too much. I kept my distance and vowed I’d pay.

As I sat down to do so, I had a moment of confusion as I stared at their name on an old cashed check, dated after that project. I blinked, double-checked. I had paid them, on time and in full, along with everyone else, over a year prior. In fact, they had been my first payment on that project. This explained why they never asked for payment. I realized that amid my stress over covering the gap, that contractor had been my first worry — and somehow, I kept worrying, even when there was nothing to worry about.

In our own imaginations, we cast ourselves as villains — and then we suffer when others do the same. I came very close to double-paying a contractor for work I was never compensated for. But worse, I spent so much needless stress, and self-vilification, on a crime I didn’t commit. Essentially, I lived out my recurring dream, convicted and horrified, for an assumption, an illusion.

Over that cup of coffee this morning, my boyfriend reiterated one of his beautiful thoughts: the absence of absolute right and wrong. You are the one to decide, he so often tells me, and I immediately disqualify myself. “Who am I to judge myself?” I wonder. “What if I’m wrong?” “What if I’m too easy on myself?” “What if everyone knew that thing?”

Maybe if I’d walked shamelessly up to the contractor that night, I would have gotten thanked for the money I’d absentmindedly sent and cleared up my guilt and confusion. Maybe there will be no moment of confrontation in the presence of my judge this week; maybe, as my optimistic coffee partner pointed out, there will be healing and laughter instead. I’m completely not perfect. Perhaps occasionally, I’ll still sit a little horrified at my own humanity.

But maybe I’ll take a lesson from my dad, my mom — instead trying to see myself beyond the mistakes I’ve made, the cases others present, or the verdicts reached.

Sometimes our dreams, our nightmares, change course with a little perspective. Our ability to do so is our key to redemption — in our actions, our paths, our perspectives.

I think I’ll change course, myself.  I’d planned on walking on eggshells this week; but walking shamelessly sounds a little better.

The Thoughtful Bouquet

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One of the tenets of mindfulness and meditation, non-attachment is often seen as a route to freedom. So much suffering, it’s thought, is created by mere thoughts that we perceive as true. These thoughts — comprised of electrical impulses jumping synapses in the brain, associations formed as neuropathways fuse, beliefs passed down as truths, or even our self perception — often entrap us; sometimes enslave us.

Missing the Boat on Stream of Consciousness

There are many ways of looking at our ability to attach to thoughts. During one of my first forays into therapy, I was invited to see thoughts “drift by,” in particular, as if they were “floating past me on a stream.” In short, this pastoral scene stressed me out. My thoughts were floating right past me? Even in my mind’s eye, I wanted to grab after them. Even in my mind’s eye, I kept trying to devise some kind of fishing pole, dam, net, anything — to prevent the slipping by of such important things.

The Pros and Cons of Overthinking

Not everything we pass -- nor that passes us -- is worth keeping.

The infinite task of sorting through thoughts.

Over the course of my life, I’ve grown up doing a lot of thinking about thoughts. I analyze, categorize, reflect, reinforce and question my thoughts. I have a strong memory, particularly for external and internal exchanges, and I can recall my thought processes easily. In this way, thought analysis brings insight, connection, remembrance, and context. But the downside of all this thinking about thinking is that it leaves little room for two important things — the simplicity of experience and the ability to change cognitive patterns.

Because thoughts come so rapidly, so fluidly, we cannot possibly meditate on each one while directing our attention to our experience. Occasionally, in my dating life, I’ve even found myself thinking out loud — sometimes, to the exasperation of my partner, amid a passionate kiss. When you’re running commentary on your sexual adventures, you’re not playing them passionately in those moments. When you’re attaching yourself to every thought, you’re not immersing yourself in the feelings in your fingers, the sensations on your lips.

The other obstacle created by thoughts becoming too important is that we become so very pulled by them, we simply can’t direct them. Our fears seem like forecasts; our mental routes the only way. When our thoughts become less important, we can better master them. We can choose which ones benefit us, which ones we want to invite to stay.

Making Beautiful Arrangements

When someone’s imagery doesn’t work for me, I often try to find my own. While I couldn’t bear picturing my thoughts as leaves floating down a river, I could picture them as a wind-blown swirl of leaves moving around me (with the reassurance that they would simply fall and scatter, and I could sort through them later). For a while, this metaphor worked for me.

We're drawn to certain flowers, even amid a plant filled with similar ones.

There’s an abundance of things to think, things to believe.

The other day, though, as I walked through my neighborhood, with its intense, meticulous gardens, I saw things in a new light. What if our thoughts don’t need judgment — what if we’re in a field of wildflowers, strange grasses, weeds. What if it’s merely a question of what you want in your bouquet? It’s attachment you can choose. Maybe you love roses; or maybe you’d prefer a daffodil. There’s an abundance of thoughts out there to be had, some nurtured within ourselves, some grown by others. And you only have to hold the ones you want to — the ones you’d like at your table, coloring your home, interlaced into your hair. The rest you can always revisit, or you can simply pass by.

Eyes Like Neon Signs

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“…And it’s bad to have eyes like neon signs,
Flashing, ‘Open. Open. Open. Open. Open.
Open all the time.'” (Ani Difranco)

On the other hand, stay closed for too long and you can emotionally rust.

Sometimes openness leaves you more open to rejection.

I spent most of my years before high school as a fairly closed person. In my early teens, I met someone I finally felt I could unravel myself for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t such a good judge of character at 14 years old. Strangely — and fortunately enough — I was a fairly good judge of the spiritual, emotional and abstract. I still recall an incredibly conscious moment sitting in my bedroom, teenage angst oozing from my recent betrayal and first, fresh heartbreak. I had a single thought:

“I could go back to being shy and quiet. Or I could just stay open.”

Choosing Openness

It was an incredibly conscious moment, in part, because I was literally in the middle of the first self-aware moments of emotional pain of a level (and type) I’d never known before. Yet, part of me somehow instinctually knew I was at a crossroads. And, two decades later, I’m here to testify to the transformative power of love. It doesn’t have to be lasting, genuine or even sincere. Sometimes, the transformation itself doesn’t even fully occur until it’s gone. Sometimes, the way we respond to heartbreak, or to loss, becomes not only a vital part of the story — but defines the changes we make.

After tasting openness and connection, I made that choice to “stay open.” I was, perhaps, in my college years, one of the more open people you might have met — probably to a fault, if you feel like faulting such things. Honesty on this level was new, refreshing, simplifying. I’d spent a long time hiding flaws, on behalf of myself or other people. Over time, I’ve tempered this openness to a degree, largely because I’ve seen how it can be in my best interest (and that of others, sometimes) not to opt for full disclosure. With those I love most, though, I still come pretty close.

When Openness Backfires

Recently, this openness backfired. A confidence led to its betrayal, judgment of myself, gossip about me, and three-way drama. My boyfriend asked about the minor estrangement that ensued, and noticed myself deflate as I stammered out an explanation over breakfast. Later, he asked me why I opened up to this particular person in this way. “You handed her a loaded gun,” he explained.

Sometimes, openness backfires in this way. It goes with the territory, I suppose. Sometimes you find yourself misunderstood or judged. It’s true; the less you share, the less ammunition anyone has to use against you. Perhaps that’s why shyness and social anxiety so often go hand in hand — words you don’t say, things you don’t share, gatherings you don’t attend can’t be the setting for judgment or rejection.

Lighting Back Up

Putting It Out There for Others

We’re all traveling, looking for somewhere to go.

My mother was perhaps the most open person I have ever met in my life. She was quirky, comfortable in her own skin, and loved other people almost as much as she loved giving to them. She put herself out there, to strangers, friends, and acquaintances, most of the time, bringing inspiration, laughter, insight and healing. Sometimes, though, she found herself met with harsh judgment. In those moments, particularly when others judged her intentions or meanings, with eyes red and puffy from her hurt feelings, she’d say, “You know, I’m a very misunderstood person.” In those moments, she’d tell herself she ought not to “share these things.” In those moments, though a devout extravert, she’d often announce, “I’m off people!”

But, somehow, a day or two later, she’d be stopping in the supermarket to comfort someone. She’d be telling a friend a hysterical, self-effacing story about herself to help them feel better about their own similar mistakes. She’d be saying the things we’re so frightened to admit, the problems we pretend we don’t have, the truths she’d reached by addressing the world with a tender, accessible heart. And, often, she glowed like that neon open sign — offering that accessibility to others who may be looking for somewhere warm to go.

Self Loathing vs. Acceptance

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Occasionally someone says something to me that “clicks,” offering insight that I can own and integrate. Today, the insight came from my sister’s boyfriend, during a discussion about my anxiety. I expressed my desire to explore further options, and mentioned how much self-loathing I experience as a result of my inability to transcend the issue. “The very presence of self-loathing,” he said, “indicates you haven’t accepted this as your hand.”

Accept first, then plan your play.

Acceptance of the hand we're dealt allows us to strategize without the distraction of ego.

Acceptance and Change

It’s an interesting thought. We cannot change what we don’t first accept. You can’t begin a training plan until you accept that you’re not at the physical fitness level you desire. You can’t pursue a new job until you accept your dissatisfaction at your current one (or lack of one). You can’t even change your clothes without first accepting that your current outfit is uncomfortable or undesirable in the moment.

Self-Judgment as a Decoy for Responsibility

We live in a society where self-loathing can look a lot like acceptance. We watch reality shows where people “break through denial” by admitting their hate for their bodies, their anger at themselves for hoarding, and the helplessness they feel in the face of addictions. We tell ourselves this is the first step — essentially becoming fed up or “hitting bottom.” As Americans, we believe that this step of facing our negative self-views lays the foundation for change. “Taking responsibility” is a tricky notion. In its purest sense, it can mean empowering yourself to act, do, be and change. In its adulterated form, it can lead to self-loathing, over-owning of obstacles as identity, and chronic frustration at our initial, unchanged state.

Acceptance Begins With Compassion

But what would true acceptance look like? I think it probably looks a lot like compassion. Compassion for the psyche, compassion for the brain that endures chemical imbalance, compassion for the unmet needs behind the hoarding, compassion for the body that struggles in poor health. These things simply are what they are — and most of us are the best poised for change when we approach our issues with nonjudgment. When we accept ourselves on this level, we not only reinforce our self-esteem, but we avoid the distraction and displacement of our focus on the self. When we believe the thought, “It’s just me,” we create a reality where we’re intrinsically bad and beyond repair. In the long run these judgments gain us little and ultimately take us further from resolution.

For me, the notion of accepting “this hand” is a hopeful one. Maybe it’s not that I coped wrong, or survived wrong, or simply didn’t do enough, or simply didn’t try enough. Those notions may sound noble at first glance, but my sister’s boyfriend was right — they are the essence of nonacceptance. They buck against the simple, neutral reality of a brain and body jacked up on adrenaline, believing that if I were a better person, the reality would be different. I’m instantly transported to the “if only I could” future and out of the compassionate present.

Simplifying Through Acceptance

Like many of us, I do this because of my judgment of the reality itself as bad or undesirable. When I detach from this judgment, I find a simple, peaceful truth: I have an anxiety disorder I cannot control. So what? Suddenly the problem becomes clearer. Rather than fretting about my ability to attain a solution, I can simply pursue more. I don’t need to analyze or judge all the past efforts. I don’t need to worry about my own defectiveness or compare myself to others who have overcome the issue. All that energy can now be freed up, directed towards new avenues and possibilities.

Freeing Up Our Energy

Perhaps that misdirected energy is the point here. It’s not simply about the collective time we spend in self-loathing, but also in the energy it expends. Any of us who have instantly felt “deflated” in the wake of negative thoughts can attest to this. The exceptional machines of our bodies and minds have circuit breakers built-in — we require rest, calories, and relaxation to continue performing mental and physical actions each day. How many of us would have the energy to endure constant criticism and judgment from another person, and still accomplish what we want and need to in a day? So often we expect ourselves to endure our own judgments without the repercussion of drain.

“Friend” Yourself With Compassionate Acceptance

So, what would happen if next time you stepped on the scale, you simply saw a number and not a judgment? How about if the next time you overlooked a detail or forgot an errand, you just saw a task to do, without attaching judgments of carelessness or irresponsibility to the situation? What would happen if you never experienced thoughts of the “maybe it’s just me” variety again? Try it for a day. Simply notice your impulses towards self-judgment. Our most compassionate friends are the ones who simply accept us, our life events, our errors. Befriend yourself a little today and see what energy — and change — emerges when you trade a little self-loathing for full acceptance of yourself and your situation.

Mid-Week Minimix: Hopeful Songs for Passing Pain

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Sometimes the present moment feels like to much to bear. More often, though, it’s the thought of interminably “bearing” the negative emotions that really gets to us. From needle-phobia to exhausted grief to grimacing when bills come, our real fear is that the suffering will endure.

And sure, in the moment it can feel that way. My brother always reminds me that even the most serious situations are marathons, not sprints. The elusive finish line eventually appears, but when you’re tired and sore, all you see is a further stretch of road with no end in sight.

Five Audio Reminders: Everything Gets Better

If you’re simply treading water this week — or perhaps even just eyeing the proverbial pool in dread — here are a few songs that may help lift your sights and your spirits.

  • The Five Stairsteps – Ooh, Child
    With an orchestral feel and choral backing vocals, this soulful number is packed with ’70s sunshine. Lyrics remind you that first, we’re all in this together, paving way for its simple refraining message: “Things are gonna get easier.”

     
  • Paul Simon – Gone At Last
    There’s something about gospel music that just lifts you up — even if the gospel’s a secular one. Here, Paul Simon teams with Phoebe Snow to testify of trouble and bad luck bettered by a Good-Samaritan approach. Playing off a scriptural quote, Simon reminds his “so downcast” soul his losing streak may be “gone at last.”

     
  • Bob Dylan – I Shall Be Released
    Some hopes and prayers work as reassurances, too. In Pain? Discouraged? Wronged? The perfect reminder that all those things which temporarily enslave us will eventually give way. “Any day now,” Dylan reaffirms for us, we’ll “be released.”

     (★ Side Note: if you’re looking for some philosophical perspective on the transient nature of suffering, It’s Alright, Ma is a good choice for elevating your mind rather than your spirits.)
     
  • Gabe Dixon Band – All Will Be Well
    Feel like you’re the thing that’s beyond repair? “All Will Be Well” serves as encouragement that time and effort can negate even the most lengthy track-records of self-sabotage or broken promises. It’s a long track with few lyrics, but when you need to renew your faith in yourself, the song offers plenty of reinforcement for hope and change.

     
  • Bob Marley – Three Little Birds
    Take it from reggae king and expert on resilient hope Bob Marley: every little thing is gonna be all right. Still skeptical? Three out of three little birds agree: you shouldn’t worry about a thing. It’s all going to work out eventually.

     

Need to put some hope on repeat? No sweat. With Grooveshark’s free music service, you can listen to the whole Hopeful Songs playlist (no registration required) or save it for later streaming online.